Researchers at BBN and elsewhere have done preliminary work along these lines to better understand the issues. Though neither systematic nor comprehensive, this work identifies some key research questions and suggests specific directions for more substantial action-oriented research efforts.
A recent study conducted from December 1994 to January 1996 probed the barriers, benefits, and perceived worth of the Internet to six low-income urban families in Florida, a group representative of the traditionally underserved and informationally disadvantaged population (Bier, 1996). The researchers asked what these families would actually do on-line given unrestricted Internet access in their homes. Each family was lent a home computer, high-speed modem, and printer; was provided with dial-up point-to-point Internet access; and was given training on the use of the mouse and keyboard. The computers were equipped with an interface security program, an integrated productivity package, several educational games, a typing tutorial, and a set of Internet utilities. Families were taught how to communicate with each other electronically and how to locate and acquire resources from the Internet. Additional training and technical support were available on demand for the duration of the project. Through interviews, visits, and telephone and e-mail interactions, researchers obtained data on the amount of time participants spent on-line, the sites they visited, the information they sought, and the obstacles they encountered. The participants made use of virtual hospitals, medical dictionaries, and physicians' desk references. They joined support groups, investigated scholarships, and made local transportation arrangements. They investigated appliances, employment listings, and local calendars of events. They e-mailed, chatted, and surfed the World Wide Web; made friends; felt personally empowered as learners; and gained a new sense of community. The results showed that Internet access enabled "powerful emotional and psychological transformations" on the part of the participants.
During the past two years, my colleagues at BBN have used the computer program RelLab (for Relativity Laboratory) to teach the concepts of relative motion to educationally disadvantaged inner-city high school students in Boston (Horwitz, 1995). The program enables users to construct and run relativity "thought experiments." The inner-city students worked